Watching a Droplet Freeze

On cold surfaces, freezing droplets from crystals that are swept outward by repeated fronts.

Whether it’s rain hitting an airplane wing or droplet-based 3D printing, the dynamics of a droplet impacting and solidifying on a surface are important. This new study observes the process from below, tracking the progress of freezing on a scale of hundreds of nanoseconds.

All three of the drops you see above are liquid hexadecane. Each droplet was the same size and impacted at the same velocity. What differs in each image is how much colder the surface was than hexadecane’s melting point. The leftmost image shows a droplet on a surface only a few degrees cooler than the melting point. The initial expanding ring shows the droplet’s contact line expanding as it impacts. Then frozen crystals appear and grow inside the drop until the entire thing freezes.

With a slightly colder surface (middle image), frozen crystals form while the contact line is still expanding, and rather than form in distinctive spots, they form as a cloud that quickly expands throughout the drop.

But with an even colder surface (right image), something entirely new happens. As the drop freezes, we see multiple dark rings expand through the drop. Each of these rings is made up of frozen crystals. The researchers argue that we’re seeing a combination of freezing and hydrodynamics here. Essentially, whenever the frozen crystals get large enough, the outward flow of the impacting drop sweeps them toward the contact line. As new crystals grow near the center of the drop, they’re dragged out in a subsequent wave. (Image, research, and submission credit: P. Kant et al.)

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